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The line drawings of Isabel Albrecht

Angela Eames

I wanted to make something that was impersonal, arm’s length and intimate, minimal and maximal, using the least amount of paint possible but providing the greatest amount of information possible, showing no display of the artist’s hand in terms of virtuoso brushmanship but employing unbelievable handwork, you know, lots of labour. And I was interested in the tension that comes from these dichotomies and those extremes. I always thought the best art was extreme whatever it was.

Isabel Albrecht aligns herself completely with the practice of drawing. She is a drawer despite her choice of medium, whether that is graphite or paint, canvas or paper. Her methodology involves the painstaking laying down of lines and in this recent body of work these are lines of paint, which she refers to defiantly as brush lines and not brush strokes. Canvas or paper of previously specified dimension is tracked in entirety with marks, individually applied lines of oil or water colour, which suffuse on completion into a new surface. The viewer is invited to respond to these drawings.

Albrecht’s own response to a completed work involves the expectation of surprise. At the outset of each work, she sets out the parameters by which the piece will reveal itself, adheres to these with dedication, somewhat tempered by her own human fallibility, and is confronted at the end of the working process, with what has actually happened. For Albrecht the habitual is of limited interest, it is the new or previously unseen with which she is concerned. When asked what it is that she wants from an individual work she replies that she is after revelation. She wants to see what has crept into the work, what has happened that was unexpected or unanticipated and how this misadventure might affect her approach to future work.

When I first found the line, I was surprised and frightened. It might limit me to ‘small and subtle’. If you continue using something for a prolonged time, intimacy creeps in. Keeping the balance between the complacency of habit and the tension of change isn’t always easy.

Albrecht started working with the line whilst a BA and MA student of Drawing in London and as her written words indicate, it was with some trepidation that she decided to adopt line as her means of working. The maturity of her practice as exemplified in this exhibition demonstrates the richness and extent of potential emanating from such straightforward decision making early on in her career. Albrecht is passionate about system, pattern, serial approaches to making and repetition. Visual awareness of twentieth century artists such as Agnes Martin, Josef and Annie Albers, Kenneth and Mary Martin and a kinship with Constructivism and the German Bauhaus movement is evidenced in her work. It was the structured approach of artists such as these which instilled in her a love for formalised procedure, the rationality of number systems and a strategic approach to working. Albrecht recognised at an early stage that strategy could allow complete freedom from habitual ways of working and deliver visual results that were unexpected. She is also fascinated by architecture and it is no anomaly that the issues with which she herself is concerned are echoed in current architectural practice. In conversation, we spoke of the skinning of many buildings within current architectural practice, from the functional patterned facades of Nouvel’s lnstitut du Monde Arabe, Paris, France, to the gridded multi-coloured external membrane of Sauerbruch Hutton Architects’ Labor-und Bürogebäude, Biberach, Germany. Her interest in these buildings stems not so much from their material or formal construction but more the notion of transformation experienced by the viewer from within or without the building and patterned surface as the instigator of that visual encounter. With reference to her personal visual experience she states that the work which first put her on the path she now treads was Pentecost, attributed to Giotto, which she saw at the National Gallery on arrival in England to study. It was the tripartite aspects of the painting that attracted her; the three triangular shapes at the top of the painting, the three subdivided vertical sections central to the painting, the three arched windows and the panel of three sections at the bottom of the painting. It was ultimately the formal construction of the piece that drew her in and directed her toward future research into numerology, pattern and structure. She was particularly intrigued by the use of the prime number three as signifier of the Holy Trinity. Notwithstanding formality and meaning, when it comes to methodology and her use of graphite, watercolour, ink or oil paint, these media are not used in a cursory manner. Like Giotto, Albrecht has within her working practice acquired an in depth knowledge of substrates and the specific properties of her chosen medium and not least, the integration of both.

In a work such as Untitled (Progression, Light Grey I), (p. 29), the surface of the work alludes to a three dimensional event. One might imagine the rippling of undulating paper or equivalent banded material trapped on the surface, frozen for a moment in time. The paint transforms into ribbons indicating contour, wave forms which traverse the plane. The work is an aerial view as opposed to a conventional view of landscape, where the viewer is given the opportunity to survey the intricacies of sequence and interruption of white through grey. The viewer stands on the ground but is simultaneously looking at or rather down on the drawing. The piece calls our attention to substance, matter, structure and geological formation. There is the inevitable reference to microcosm and macrocosm as the fine painted lines assemble into determined bandwidths which in turn travel horizontally across the surface of the drawing and ostensibly leave the confines of the work, the edge of the canvas, extending into infinity. It is in this respect that Albrecht is a drawer rather than a painter. The individual lines of oil paint are applied with a brush but it is the line which carries weight. Collectively the tiny individual lines become other, or a further construct of line - bandwidths. As James Siena has stated, “The realness of painting (as real as a chair) occurs within the four sides of my rectangles. Nothing traverses the edge.” Whereas a traditional concern within the practice of painting is that the activity on the canvas or substrate is contained within the boundaries of the picture plane, in Albrecht’s work the indication is that the visual content can extend beyond the confines of the picture plane into infinity, not merely as pattern but as cellular growth. The absence of continuum only increases the probability of an extended field, referencing perhaps, the limitations of human knowledge. The marks made on paper or canvas flow on ad infinitum; they are fragments, parts of an unseen whole, presenting moments of manageable focus, clarity and perception.

The forming of Albrecht’s work is intensive, requiring an ordered and rigorous approach to making. The issue of time both anticipated and actual cannot be ignored here. Many a viewer might be tempted to consider the duration of time spent making a work as the all-encompassing modus operandi much as they might consider the activity of the animator making thousands of frames toward a final animation. Consideration of the sheer effort involved on the part of the artist tends to override any alternative viewing and often leads to a misplaced fascination with duration as being directly related to effort; if it takes a long time to do then it must be worthwhile. It is true that there is an enormous amount of work and time dedicated to an individual work, or even series of works, in Albrecht’s practice but in a lifetime of making marks or lines the subdivision of these efforts into particular pieces somehow seems irrelevant. Her practice is one, punctuated by moments of completion of stages or works, each one in turn contributing to the bigger picture. In the privacy of the artist’s studio, several pieces or series might be worked on simultaneously, whilst others hang on walls constantly re-informing the artist of their presence, their particularity and peculiarity. Work informs work. Within her parameters time is a pre-condition of working. Doubtless she has a fair knowledge of how long a piece will actually take to complete but there is no accounting for the mental and physical stamina to sustain this objective, or to use Chuck Close’s phrase, arm’s length approach. A methodical, timetabled approach, where one might draw for the first two hours of the morning, over a defined number of days, will inevitably be different from drawing during the last two hours of the afternoon over the same period of days. Physical and emotional factors such as energy or fatigue, consistency or monotony come into play and in turn become embedded within the drawing process to be revealed finally as momentary interruptions or extended periods of uniformity.

How are these drawings actually made? The clues are there within the individual works. The mechanics of the process are to a large degree dependent on the physiology of the artist herself. The drawn or brushed lines are always engineered vertically, from top to bottom of their previously allocated graphite-prescribed channel, simply because this is the most physically comfortable and thereby efficient mode of drawing. However this procedural verticality does not necessarily determine the final orientation of the work. On completion, drawings might be rotated plus or minus ninety degrees or turned upside down as a result of a further part of the working process involving aesthetic decision making. In some cases the lines might progress across an entire series, by virtue of colour particularity or structural determination, spanning the total number of individual parts or sections and interconnecting the components of a series. Setting the parameters for the start of the work is one issue but Albrecht is emphatic about the criteria for stopping the work. She stops when her self-imposed set of instructions has been carried out. Only then is she able to assess what has actually happened and to progress her thinking into how the work should finally be presented.
Untitled (Paynes Blue, large I), is the largest canvas which Albrecht has undertaken to date although she has completed larger works on paper. As the name suggests the colouration spans through Titanium White to Paynes Blue and in this piece gradated periods or episodes are built from drawn adjacent vertical brush lines of about three centimetres in height. The gradated episode is repeated horizontally across the canvas until a previously prescribed iteration, in this case eleven, is reached. The individual vertical lines vary slightly but significantly due to the manual application of the paint, revealing an accumulation of difference. Should the eleven sections on aggregate extend further than the boundary of the canvas, they are continued on a dropped down row. If they fall short of the edge of the canvas the next set of gradations starts on the same row. As with text the letters, words and sentences range across the page until they are wrapped to the next row. The rows of painted information are justified.

There are typists who are perfunctorily accurate and precise in their transcription of dictated speech but totally unaware of the content of their output. There are also typists who are able to register the content whilst typing. Albrecht belongs to the latter group; her activity is as universal as writing or speech in its linearity and as in the case of a good writer she maintains a rigorous vigilance to predetermined and accidental incidents as the work progresses. There is a refusal to stray from her parameters in mid-course but this does not preclude attention being paid to happenstance. The accidental is absorbed. Initial parameters are laid down, brushes are defined, paint is measured in hue, saturation, viscosity and quantity but the inbuilt resistance on the part of hand and brain to operate as a precise engineering tool ultimately holds sway. Albrecht did experiment with digital means in planning this larger work and she discovered that the inherent specificity of the computing environment demands that even more attention be spent if one wishes to incorporate the erroneousness of the human hand. She found out that the schema of a piece can be worked through in a preliminary sense but the equivalent execution of a work like this would require a sympathetic and entirely appropriate approach to the business of making brush lines within the digital environment. Thereis then the realisation that some things are quicker by hand. Irony indeed, but different tools are required to accomplish different tasks.
Untitled (Paynes Blue, large I) actually steps outside of Albrecht’s body of work to date, in terms of its manageability. The decisions she makes with regard to planning the overall dimensions of individual works is in essence ergonomic. In other words, there is a fit between her physical capabilities, the working approach, the medium and substrate employed and the pieces. Canvasses can be lifted and moved around easily, their dimensions being directly related to her physical arm span and grip. Large or small scale works on paper are worked on horizontally on a table or vertically on a wall within this same human range. This human scale is passed directly to the viewer when the works are exhibited. The viewer is able to take up that aerial viewpoint referred to earlier. The eye can take in the entire work and there is an invitation to contemplate the potential extent implied through absence of continuum around a drawing or series of drawings. The smaller scale works, up to thirty centimetres square, allow the viewer to take possession of the work. They demand a more intimate focus. Large or small the works are personal in their engagement and in many cases the use of the square format heightens this sense of containment. Albrecht is not alone among artists shunning the industry produced standard for paper sizing of A0 through A5. Her choice of square or specified rectangular format, as integral to the form and content of her work, relates to the inherent properties of universal grid systems, the individuality of the unit and the propensity for the fusion of those units into an expanded whole.

In conclusion, I find myself asking the question, where do these works belong? In relation to function, I reiterate that they might offer the viewer an insight into their own perceptual abilities, a slice of what might be possible, an almost but not scientific viewpoint. As Joseph Kosuth quoted from Frederic Jameson in his article, On Ad Reinhardt:

It should be clear, therefore, that a critique of the new modernism cannot be an external but only an internal affair, that it is part and parcel of an increasing self-consciousness (in the heightened, dialectical sense we have given to that term) and that it involves a judgement on ourselves fully as much as a judgement on the works of art to which we react.

But where do these works sit in the broader context of art practice? What does Albrecht contribute to now?

Being an artist now, means to question the nature of art. If one is questioning the nature of painting, one cannot be questioning the nature of art. If an artist accepts painting (or sculpture) he is accepting the tradition that goes with it. That’s because the word ‘art’ is general and the word ‘painting’ is specific. Painting is a kind of art. If you make paintings you are already accepting (not questioning) the nature of art. One is then accepting the nature of art to be the European tradition of a painting-sculpture dichotomy. But in recent years the best new work has been neither painting nor sculpture, and increasing numbers of young artists make art that is neither one.

Traditionally the practice of drawing was not separated from the more accepted significant practices of painting and sculpture. It has always been acknowledged as somehow fundamental, something one did as preparatory to more serious work, some kind of support structure to traditionally taught and named practices perhaps. It has been and is accepted that drawing is embedded in all forms of visual practice from painting to film making. The word drawing, as generic to visual practice, could be considered as equivalent to the word art in the above Kosuth statement. Ad Reinhardt, Art and Language, Lawrence Weiner and Roman Opalka to name but a few, could be seen as the precursors of a major shift in fine art practice from seeing as looking to the re-conceptualisation of visual practice, where artists take responsibility for the social, political and cultural implications of their work. The current art field is one where artists engage individually or collaboratively, incognito or high profile, utilising every possible means and/or medium to engage with meaning and their audience. It is not that seeing as looking has been rejected in favour of this re-conceptualisation rather that the two have become intertwined in present-day practice. The scientist has not given up the microscope in favour of current scientific judgement of appropriate avenues for scientific research. As Jeff Wall has stated,

“...drawing is a kind of touchstone for all pictorial art, regardless, because it won't and can't be replaced with anything else...because it is the most sophisticated, ancient practice.”

It is indeed ancient, more so than the microscope and it is still here as the bedrock of visual practice. Drawing throughout its history and by its very nature, incorporates both approaches, seeing as looking and re-conceptualisation and the prevalence of drawing now as a significant practice, testified by numerous conferences, exhibitions and publications dedicated to drawing over the past fifteen years, cannot be denied. As a consequence of the shift in emphasis in visual practice and in conjunction with the demands of the all-pervasive electronic environment, particularly through programming, drawing has found itself in the vanguard of visual practice. I have written before that,

“Drawing as visual thinking is a critical activity. Drawing accommodates the coupling of intuitive and accidental behaviour with a rational and planned approach intrinsic to innovation. How else might we recognise potentials beyond our individual and necessarily limited experience?”

Albrecht’s work sits firmly in this territory. As she states herself, “drawing is my thought process, my intention is not painting.”
So... brush lines not brush strokes.